ENGL428Y - Book 2.0: The History of the Book and the Future

When Shakespeare's Polonius, acting as spy for King Claudius, encounters an aggrieved Hamlet pacing about with an open book, he asks the prince what he is reading.  Hamlet's evasive response--"words, words, words"--intentionally misconstrues the question, preferring to treat it as an inquiry about the material properties of the book rather than an expression of curiosity regarding its meaning or subject matter.  Taking a cue from this exchange, this course situates the physicality or "thingness" of books--those "poor bits of rag-paper [printed] with black ink," as Thomas Carlyle once described them--within book culture more broadly.  Our approach will be unapologetically expansive as we survey antecedents of the book ranging from the clay tablets of the ancient Near East to the papyrus scrolls of antiquity to the manuscript and printed codices of the middle ages and early modern era.  This historical backdrop will set the stage for a speculative consideration of the future of the book, including developments in areas such as electronic paper, wireless reading devices, mobile e-readers, distributed storytelling, DIY publishing experiments, locative narratives and place-based authoring, and 3D books in virtual worlds.  Over the course of the semester we will test the elasticity of our mental models by looking at extreme examples of reading and writing technologies, from edible books to self-destructing poems to a nano-edition of the Hebrew Bible inscribed on a surface smaller than the head of a pin.  We will read primary texts by William Blake, Johanna Drucker, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, and the Chinese artist Xu Bing, as well as secondary texts by a variety of influential scholars.  Finally, we will supplement our cultural and technological investigations with forays into the cognitive science of reading, delving into how our eyes scan and our brains process a page or screen of text. In addition to class participation and lab exercises, course requirements will likely consist of short papers or projects, one longer paper or digital project, and a final exam.(This course is an honors seminar, and requires either admission to the English Honors Program or permission of the Honors Director)

Repeatable to 9 credits if content differs. Course intended primarily for students in English Honors Program. English majors with strong academic records may also apply. Permission from the Director of Honors required.


Junior standing. For ENGL majors only.